In the summer of 2004, the Miami Heat were coming off an impressive playoff showing. They advanced to the Eastern Conference Semifinals where they were defeated in six games by the Indiana Pacers.
Their three best players, Dwyane Wade, Caron Butler, and Lamar Odom, were all under the age of 26, and the future looked bright.
General Manager Pat Riley was finally looking like a genius after the team went a combined 61-93 over the previous two seasons. He had acquired Wade and Butler with lottery picks and signed Odom as a free agent to compliment Eddie Jones and Brian Grant.
But everything changed for Riley and the Heat the moment Shaquille O'Neal asked the Los Angeles Lakers to trade him.
O'Neal had a player option in his contract for the 2005-06 season that gave him considerable leverage in dictating where he would be dealt to. No team was going to give up what it would take to get him if he planned on staying for just one season. At the top of Shaq's list were the Orlando Magic, Miami Heat, and Dallas Mavericks.
The Magic had already made a blockbuster deal when they sent Tracy McGrady to the Houston Rockets for Steve Francis, his boyfriend Cuttino Mobley, and Kelvin Cato. The Mavericks were unwilling to part with Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash was a free agent.
That left the Heat as the only possible destination. Lakers owner Jerry Buss met with Riley to discuss the team's coaching vacancy but the conversation turned to O'Neal. Riley, reluctant to give up Wade, was willing to part with Butler and Odom to acquire Shaq.
It had been four years since the Heat last won a division title, and Riley felt the opportunity to add a championship was worth sacrificing a future of stability and annual playoff contention.
It's hard to blame Riley, for three reasons.
First, Wade was on a rookie contract for three additional years, so the addition of Shaq's $30 million contract meant he'd be paying his two stars a combined $32 million. When compared to other superstar tandems in the NBA, that was pretty reasonable.
Second, Riley had a stipulation in his contract that would grant him a minority ownership stake in the team after ten years, so adding Shaq would greatly increase the value of the franchise.
Third, and most obviously, it's hard to blame Riley after the Heat won the 2006 NBA Championship.
Riley's gamble paid off. Two years later, though, it seems as if Riley made a deal with the devil.
He got his ring in exchange for a future of failure and chaos.
Shaq is in the third year of a 5-year/$100 million extension and seems to be breaking down quickly. Wade has battled injuries since signing a long-term extension and the additions of Ricky Davis and Mark Blount have failed to buoy the sinking ship. Alonzo Mourning suffered a season and possibly career-ending knee injury.
As of today the team is ten games out of the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and only two-and-a-half games ahead of Minnesota for the NBA's worst record.
Meanwhile, the team is capped out for next season, even with Davis' and Jason Williams' expiring contracts.
Worst of all, the team has only two young players that seem like they could be part of a nucleus in Wade and Daequan Cook.
Since Shaq has two years left on his existing deal, it looks like the Heat will be going nowhere for at least two-and-a-half more years.
But maybe the Heat will be useful as a comparison.
There are some interesting parallels between Riley's 2004-05 Heat team and Danny Ainge's 2007-08 Boston Celtics.
For starters, both teams traded their young players for veterans and the chance to win now.
Riley traded Odom and Butler. Ainge traded Al Jefferson, Gerald Green, Ryan Gomes, Sebastian Telfair, Delonte West, and the fifth overall pick in the draft.
Riley traded for a 32 year-old Shaq. Ainge traded for a 31 year-old Kevin Garnett and a 32 year-old Ray Allen.
Garnett, who jumped from the NBA straight out of high school, had just completed his 11th season, the same amount of seasons Shaq had played before he was dealt.
It must be noted that Garnett is in far superior condition than Shaq was in, and that Garnett has nowhere near the amount of miles that Shaq has, considering that Shaq has appeared in six NBA Finals while Garnett has made it past the first round of the playoffs just once.
Garnett has also managed to avoid the myriad health issues that Shaq has had over the years. Since 2000, Shaq has missed a significant amount of games due to injuries to his abdominals, toes, knees and thighs.
Garnett has only missed games because the Wolves wanted to better their draft position.
While the Heat were able to at least hang onto Wade, the Celtics' only young players of significance on their roster are Rajon Rondo and Tony Allen, as the jury is still out on Glen "Big Baby" Davis and Gabe Pruitt.
Rondo and Allen aren't the types of young players that teams can build around. There isn't a GM in the NBA that would rather have Rondo than Memphis freshman Derrick Rose. If you aren't good enough to even consider taking ahead of a college freshman, then you're not a franchise player.
With no salary cap space and only one first-round pick between now and 2010, the Celtics have to dance with this current squad. They have $55 million committed to Allen, Garnett and Pierce alone for the 2009-10 season. The NBA's current salary cap is just a smidgen over $56 million. By 2010 the cap will have increased to around $60 million.
$5 million isn't much wiggle room if the team isn't where the front office would like.
Pierce and Garnett are on the books for the 2010-11 season for a little over $40 million combined. Allen's contract will have expired and he'd be 35.
While shooters like Dale Ellis, Eddie Johnson and Ricky Pierce all played well into their late 30s, none of them made anywhere near the money over the span of their careers that Allen has made. I could just as easily see Allen retire as I could see him returning for another year.
But if the Celtics aren't championship-caliber by the time that Allen becomes a free agent, then I could see them letting Allen go. Besides the $40 million they'd have committed to Pierce and Garnett, the Celtics only have two other players under contract for the 2010-11 season, Kendrick Perkins and Brian Scalabrine, for a combined $8 million.
With $48 million committed to just four players, the Celtics would only have about $12 million with which to fill out the roster.
If they bring Allen back then they won't have the flexibility to let the other guys go. And if that's the case, then you have to include possible extensions for Tony Allen, Rondo, Davis, Pruitt and maybe even Leon Powe or James Posey.
Should the Celtics not win the title either this season or next then, they'll have to make a change and Allen seems as if he'd be the one to go. He will have one year remaining on his contract so he'll be attractive to teams looking for expiring deals or ones that are just a shooter away from winning a title and don't want to make a long-term commitment.
Garnett is obviously not going anywhere, and Pierce didn't wait patiently for the team to surround him with veterans only to be shown the door once they became contenders.
Of course, by then, Al Jefferson will have surpassed Garnett in points and rebounds per game. By then, Ryan Gomes will probably be a valuable 6th man on a contending team. By then, Gerald Green will be a 46% shooter and will have finally figured out how to play defense.
Even Bassy Telfair has shown signs of life in Minnesota.
If the team does decide to trade Allen and the trade doesn't work out for them, the Celtics could very much resemble this year's Heat team. They would be old, overpaid and unattractive to top-tier free agents looking for one last chance to win a ring and willing to take a mid-level deal to do so.
What all this means for the Celtics is that they've given themselves a two-to-three year window to win a title. What it also means is, win or lose, the Celtics face a long road of rebuilding after those three years are up.
Ask one of the Heat's 19 fans and they'll probably tell you it was worth it. But what do they know?
Their franchise was still two years away from existence the last time the Celtics won a title.
They were hungry for a title; the Celtics are starving for one.
Bob Cousy might have summed it up best: "People say it's bringing a short-term solution to a long-term problem. But if it works, that short-term solution for the next two or three years is going to bring a lot of joy to a lot of people."
When it's all said and done, will those three years be worth the years spent rebuilding, both before and after Garnett?
If they win a title, then most Celtics fans will probably tell you yes. If they don't, and Jefferson prospers while Garnett's fading, then they might say no.
There's been a lot of premature talk of these Celtics joining the pantheon of truly great NBA teams. 67 or 68 wins can't be overlooked.
But the Celtics need only look south to see what the worst-case scenario looks like.
The window is open. But the clock is ticking.
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